Veljko Paunovic calls U.S. Open Cup the Fire's priority ahead of quarterfinal

Veljko Paunovic calls U.S. Open Cup the Fire's priority ahead of quarterfinal

As the Chicago Fire continue to sit at the bottom of the Major League Soccer standings, the team’s run in the U.S. Open Cup takes more and more focus.

The Fire take on the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers at Toyota Park in a quarterfinal in the competition on Wednesday. Coach Veljko Paunovic talked about how important the U.S. Open Cup has become.

“This is our must-win game,” Paunovic said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “We are truly motivated and very optimistic about this competition. It becomes our priority and this is how we are working.”

That statement certainly lines up with the lineup Paunovic played in the 3-1 loss at FC Dallas on Saturday. David Accam, Jonathan Campbell and Sean Johnson didn’t even travel for the game and Matt Polster was subbed off at halftime.

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The Fire are in the middle of a stretch that includes five matches in 15 days. The squad rotation was decided well in advance of the trip to Dallas.

“We shared the plan with all the players before this stretch of the game started, before even the game against Sporting Kansas City (on July 13),” Paunovic said. “Everyone knows how much they’re going to participate and what the plan is from the fitness standpoint. I think we have to manage the load. July is a very hard month for us.”

That includes the goalkeeper switch with Matt Lampson playing between the posts in an MLS match for the first time since the May 14 loss at New England. Paunovic said he told Johnson and Lampson of the plan before the Sporting KC match that Johnson started.

“We want Matt Lampson to play also in the Open Cup game on Wednesday so we believe that for him it was very important for him to have a game before that,” Paunovic said.

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With the U.S. Open Cup seemingly taking priority, at least ahead of the match at Dallas, does this mean Paunovic is giving up hope on making the playoffs? The Fire have 17 points with 16 matches remaining. Last season, the first year that six teams made the playoffs from each conference, the cut off to make the playoffs in the East was 49 points. Even if that drops to 45 points considering the East appears even weaker this season, that would require the Fire to average 1.75 points per match the rest of the way. That would be the third best record in MLS this season.

In other words, the Fire would have to go from the worst team in the league to one of the best starting now just to be on the bubble to make the playoffs. Even Paunovic admitted it would take something special.

“Listen we never give up,” Paunovic said. “We will play all our games to win and that’s what we are doing. We are trying our best of course… We don’t give up on playoffs this year. I actually believe in miracles. I’ve seen them happen in soccer many times to me and even against me.”

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

NBC Sports Chicago

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

Manchester City is coming off a season in which it dominated the English Premier League to the tune of a record 100-point season.

City is kicking off the preseason of its title defense in Chicago. City takes on Borussia Dortmund at Soldier Field on Friday night.

The last time the reigning Premier League champions were in Chicago was when rivals Manchester United came to Soldier to take on the Chicago Fire in 2011.

The Citizens won’t have the full arsenal of stacked stars for its U.S. tour, which also includes stops in New York and Miami as part of the International Champions Cup. Many of the team’s best players are getting a break after playing in the World Cup. Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, one of the stars of the tournament, is one of six Man City players to reach the semifinals.

Paul Dickov, who played for City for nearly 10 years between 1996 and 2008, is on tour with the team and talked about City’s preparations.

“The reason the clubs want to come to the States and play in International Champions Cup is the facilities are fantastic, the training facilities, the hotels, the treatment they get and just give them the best preparation going into what’s going to be a hard season,” Dickov said. “Nobody has won the Premier League back-to-back titles for nearly 10 years now so it’s going to be tough. Coming here and being able to prepare the way they can in the United States is going to put them on a long way to regain the title again.”

City brought the Premier League trophy to Wrigley Field on Thursday for the Cubs-Cardinals game. Dickov got to throw out the first pitch. The Scotsman threw a strike, much to his relief.

“I was quite calm beforehand, but I must admit when I got out there and I had to walk out there both hands started getting a bit sweaty,” he said. “I managed to make it and I got a fantastic reception off the Chicago Cubs fans so thank you to everybody at Chicago Cubs for having me there. It was great. Something I’ll never forget.”

Dickov compared Cubs fans to City fans in the way both teams struggled for a long time before finding success.

“They stuck by us through thick and thin when things weren’t as great,” Dickov said of Man City fans. “I suppose it’s a little bit like the Chicago Cubs here in Chicago. The fans turn out, they get 30-40 thousand, great atmosphere, back their team.”

While promoting the game, the Premier League trophy made multiple stops in Chicago, including with the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on an off day.

City also took the trophy and new signing Riyad Mahrez, who just joined Man City from 2016 champions Leicester City, to Haas Park in Logan Square. Haas Park includes a soccer field donated by Manchester City and the American embassy of the United Arab Emirates in 2012.

“The outcome of it has been great,” Dickov said. “Thousands of children and families benefiting, not just from the soccer part of it, but the education program as well. To be down there the other day for the full day and seeing the joy in the kids face seeing soccer here and the other activities that are on is great because, yeah, football is fantastic, soccer is fantastic and when you’re out there and you play you want to win, but it’s important, especially from Manchester City’s point of view, the city and the community. The stuff that they do off the field is second to none and it’s giving something back.”

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai


Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

The Fire have secured the transfer of midfielder Aleksandar Katai from Deportivo Alavés of the Spanish La Liga, the team announced Wednesday afternoon.

This season’s breakout playmaker has been signed with Chicago through 2019, with a 2020 club option. Before the transfer, Katai was on loan from Alavés, which was set to expire after July.

The Serbian player has emerged as one of the most important pieces of the Fire’s offense this season. Since joining the club on Feb. 6, Katai has scored eight goals in 18 league matches, tying forward Nemanja Nikolić for the most on the team. Katai also has three assists in 2018.

The 27-year-old’s biggest game of the year came against New York City FC last month when he scored two goals to lead the Fire to 3-2 victory. His production this season in the MLS has been much more significant than it was in 23 matches with Alavés, where Katai only tallied three goals and four assists.

His transfer fee is unknown but, according to Sam Stejskal of, he will be a “Targeted Allocation Money player” for the rest of this season and will not be a Designated Player until 2019. Whatever the official price was, acquiring Katai for a lengthier amount of time seemed like a must.

Throughout this season, the Fire were rumored to be in talks with legendary Spanish striker Fernando Torres. On Tuesday, he signed with Sagan Tosu, a Japanese club. The Fire signed Katai the next day, showing that the team was possibly waiting for Torres to leave the market.

Chicago will face the Philadelphia Union Wednesday night at Toyota Park, where Katai will look to continue his impressive season.